21 April 2011

Jobs Situation Still Bad And Other Bad News

There are currently 130.738 million payroll jobs in the U.S. (as of March 2011). There were 130.781 million payroll jobs in January 2000. So that is over eleven years with no increase in total payroll jobs.

And the median household income in constant dollars was $49,777 in 2009. That is barely above the $49,309 in 1997, and below the $51,100 in 1998. . . . The aughts were a lost decade for most Americans. . . .

There are currently 7.25 million fewer payroll jobs than before the recession started in 2007, with 13.5 million Americans currently unemployed. Another 8.4 million are working part time for economic reasons, and about 4 million more workers have left the labor force. Of those unemployed, 6.1 million have been unemployed for six months or more.

From here.

The availability of jobs and the real wages paid in jobs are the numbers that matter most to the vast majority of Americans. Housing values relative to mortgage debt, for which we also have a lost decade or worse, is one of the few other numbers that matters for the minority of Americans, but majority of middle class Americans, who own homes.

Beyond those numbers, investment and retirement and education account balances matter, but far less so, and those numbers didn't have a great decade either. And, after that we worry about how the real wages get spent. An increasing share of real wages is getting spent on health care and college tuitions, and that squeeze on family budgets in most cases more than offsets the fact that taxes are the lowest that they have been in sixty years (although they are certainly not the least complex to comply with in that time period) and that financial investments are starting to bounce back.

A longer term perspective on the last few decades is also in order.

The lot of the working class in America has been basically stagnant for the last four decades, even as the economy as a whole has seen substantial economic growth in that time period. Less educated workers have had regular periods of unemployment and stagnant real wages, their children have had less opportunity for socio-economic advancement than their parents did. Even socio-economic advancement through marriage has declined. And, the institution of marriage has suffered tremendously for working class Americans. Divorce rates have surged and marriage rates have dramatically declined for the working class without sufficiently compensating increased stability in non-marital intimate relationships. At first, the same thing seemed to happen for more educated couples, but the trend for them reversed they are now less likely to divorce and more likely to get married and have successful marriages than their parents.

In the last couple of decades, the stagnation that hit the working class first has worked its way up the social class ladder. Soon, low level white collar workers were as squeezed a blue collar workers. In last decade or so, even lower level managerial and professional workers, and college graduates with less elite credentials have failed to capture a significant share of the expanding economic pie whose fruits have grown more and more concentrated at the very, very top. Just before the financial crisis, this concentration of wealth and income reached levels not seen since the eve of the Great Depression. Despite initial optimism that the financial crisis would have a leveling effect that would counteract these excesses, later assessments have suggests that this hasn't happened to nearly the extent most people has expected.

The economic story of the last few decades had still been a story of great prosperity on average until late 2007, and remains a story of prosperity over time frames longer than a decade. But, it has not been a story of shared prosperity. As a whole, economic growth has continued to match trendlines, but broken down by social class, the vast majority of Americans our economy doesn't look like its thriving.

Worse yet, we don't really have any good economic theory to tell us why this is happening and how to fix it. Economists have been so fixated on macroeconomic productivity growth and political economy virtues or lack thereof of government involvement in the economy, that they have been content to simply throw changes in the distribution of wealth between social classes in the economy into a black box whose results are measured but mechanisms are ill understood.

Sociologists and some economists at the fringe of the profession have observed qualitatively that this seems to be related to the increased importance of knowledge or creativity in our economy, but most are a far cry from being able to tell a coherent story that explains why we don't build things anymore and what is making this knowledge and creativity important, and whether there is anything short of outright transfer payments that could lead to a better deal for those who are not part of an information elite.

The obvious hope would be to create a better trained workforce that can better meet our nation's needs. But, given our already highly educated by international standards workforce, and evidence trickling in that passing out more credentials isn't necessarily producing gains for those who receive them that are all that great in excess of sorting effects, it is hard to say that this extremely expensive strategy for leveling the playing field would actually work. It appears that one of the main reasons that our European competitors, at least, have a more level playing field is that they do have more generous tax and transfer payment methods for directly equalizing outcomes and forcing people to share their prosperity. Not all prosperous economies have deindustrialized to the extent that the United States has, but there isn't decisive evidence to indicate that manufacturing goods is a better strategy than providing services.

One of the narratives floating out there, called the "Great Stagnation" suggests that the problem is not temporary. Instead, it may be a new status quo, as technologically driven advancements in technology slow down because we know a greater share of everything that there is to know, and the people who can expand the pie with their knowlege has to be sweeter (and hence is harder to share with others) because the available pool of people who can make those kinds of contributions to the economy is shrinking.

We aren't a poor nation. We have a high per capita GDP. We have a highly educated work force that devotes intense effort to keeping our nation's economy productive. Sustained homelessness and health threatening hunger are still very rare by international standards. Crime is modest. We pay a public health price for failing to provide universal health care, but many people who are uninsured end up not needing health care that costs more than they can afford and can't secure with credit. Housing is more affordable right now than it has been in a long time, and an average person can afford a pretty impressive package of goods and services, particularly when you recognize that technology has been today's versions of what we used to buy better in many respects than it used to be. Unemployment is high, but doesn't seem to be continuing to surge out of control. Even if our level of material prosperity per capita didn't increase at all, we can afford a pretty decent life for all with only some pretty modest tweaking of the status quo. Part of the policy issue before us as a nation is how much we need to continue to focus on making an already large economic pie bigger and need to have never ending economic growth, and how much we need to accept that we are producing what we can and make better distributions of it from a social welfare perspective.

The lack of a real national agenda or plan for recovery would be terrifying in other countries, but, while it certainly doesn't help moral much, our political leaders have long ago given up almost entirely on attempting to craft one in favor of throwing themselves upon the mercies of the decentralized decision making methods of a market economy that nobody really understands as well as they would like to understand it.

No comments: